He did not buy the kind of place he really wanted, the kind he had envisioned as a kid—a great big Southern Colonial mansion, with lofty white pillars and live oaks shading the stately facade. "Like my master used to have," says Earnie Shavers, breaking into laughter. "Well, no, not really...."
The place he found not long ago isn't exactly the fulfillment of his youthful dream, but it is close enough in size and elegance that any antebellum plantation owner would have been proud to call it home. Pressing matters having taken him away from the mansion these days, Shavers carries around a sales brochure describing it, as if to remind himself how far he's come to get where he's at, which is right there in Mecca, Ohio.
"The very finest estate in Trumbull County," reads the brochure. "Deer roam the 70 acres surrounding this beautiful 3-year-old French Normandy manor house that overlooks a stocked lake. One wing 40 x 60 encloses a 22 x 40 heated indoor pool for year-round swimming. Seven bedrooms, three suites, seven full bathrooms with gold fixtures, two half-baths, sauna and steam room. Easily accessible with private landing field and hangar."
Shavers acquired this palatial abode about four months ago, but he has yet to spend much time in it. His wife La Verne and their five little girls moved in a few weeks ago. Though a family man at heart, Shavers could not be there for the move from nearby Warren. He was in the Cats-kills in upstate New York, running the slopes of the golf course at the Concord Hotel, sparring and skipping rope in the hotel gym, living in relative solitude in a split-level house on a side road not far from the hotel. In short, training for his second—and surely his final—chance to become heavyweight champion of the world. Shavers is scheduled to meet Larry Holmes, holder of the World Boxing Council's version of the title, this week in Las Vegas. Until then, his manor will have to wait.
"Cost me $575,000 for everything, ducks and all," Shavers says. "Plenty of room for everything. Each kid has her own bathroom, her own bedroom. The girls want a couple of sheep. One wants a pony. Lots of fish in the lake: bluegill, bass, catfish, sunfish. And I'm going to stock it with walleyed pike. Ken Norton closed the deal; Larry Holmes will pay it off."
Norton indeed closed the deal—and perhaps his career as a serious heavyweight contender—last March in Las Vegas. In the first round the former champ made the unpardonable mistake of backing away from Shavers and lapsing into a take-and-counter rope-a-dope. Closing in as Norton backed off, Shavers froze him with sharp blows to the body, forcing Norton to drop his guard, and then caught him with a terrible swift left hook to the temple that unplugged Norton's faculties. The rest was almost a formality. With Norton helpless, Shavers threw more punches in the ensuing minute than he had thrown in any five rounds in his life. He finished up with a stinging left hook that toppled Norton and a right hand that clipped him as he went down. Miraculously, Norton regained his feet, but he went down again when Shavers hit him with a right uppercut. With astonishing swiftness, Shavers had not only earned the down payment on his house but also set up the championship fight with Holmes.
"I've sacrificed and worked hard for what I have," Shavers says. "A lot of guys wouldn't fight me, figuring they'd get killed. Like Norton. He was scared to death of me. He wouldn't look me in the eyes before the fight. The Garden once offered him $1 million to fight me, but he turned it down. But he had to fight me this time to get a shot at the title. It was as simple as that."
Few things have been as simple as that in the life and career of Earnie Shavers. The Norton bout summed up Shavers as a fighter. No fighter in the world can hit a man more devastatingly than Shavers can, or do it as readily with either hand. Not since the days of Sonny Liston has there been a puncher—a banger, in the argot of the fight game—of Shavers' power. But going in against Norton, Shavers, 35, had been written off as an aged elephant ready for the walk. His first-round knockout changed all that. And not too surprisingly, because such is the nature of the puncher. When boxers lose their legs, they fade away, and the legs are the first things to go; old bangers linger on, for their punch is the last thing to forsake them.
Shavers' dismantling of Ken Norton marked the 55th time in 65 pro fights (he has won 57 of them) that he has knocked out his opponent. Of the 55 KOs, 51 have occurred before the end of the fifth round, 42 before the end of the third. True, in his 10-year career, Shavers has fought a lot of nobodies in some very outback places—Stateline, Warren, Bryant, Beaumont and Monroeville. But the cold stats remain: no fighter in modern history has knocked out a higher percentage of his opponents than this son of a former Alabama sharecropper. One more KO and unimaginable wealth would have been his. On Sept. 29, 1977 Shavers was a half-punch away from winning the heavyweight championship and becoming the first fighter to knock out Muhammad Ali. Shavers hit Ali a blow in the second round that had the champ on dream street. Ali, his legs buckling, deftly went into one of his routines, wobbling his legs and widening his eyes as if to feign astonishment. Thinking Ali was faking, Shavers stayed away. Had he bored in, throwing everything he had, surely the champion would have gone. Ali won the fight, one of his most desperate, on a decision.
"I don't think there's a man alive who can take a full-force Shavers punch more than once," says Madison Square Garden's vice-president John Condon.